You might think that with our modern lifestyles, looking back would become passé. Recently an article on Hyperallergic discussed “Ancient Greece and Rome Are Hot in Animation Right Now. Here’s Why.” The article by Chiara Sulprizio notes that themes central to history—namely, sex and violence—animate ancient mythology. This allows modern interpreters to explore where we are by looking back. At the same time, in higher education, such topics and departments are being cut. The humanities in general have come under fire lately. Where are we going to learn about such things as the classics if we cut off the only people who spend their time studying such things? This isn’t the only instance where universities seem to misread what hoi polloi find to be of interest.
The classics have been known as such because of their formative role in our culture. As this Hyperallergic story shows, they can bring in money (for this is the measure by which all things are assessed). Again it seems that higher education has followed the way of the dollar, so why not invest in the study of what makes us human? I guess I’m a bit of a curmudgeon here because it was the humanities that came up with the idea of higher education in the first place. Universities were places to study theology and law, and even the original concept of “humanities” included arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and logic. Only when these topics started to split off into what we would eventually call “STEM” did the humanities begin to suffer neglect.
It was, after all, the Greco-Roman world that gave us what we call the classics. I fully agree that we can’t constantly look back—we’d never move forward then—but our heads turn for a reason. Understanding what it is to be human seems to be something we’ve grown less interested in since the sterile clean room has given us gadgets and toys we can’t seem to live without. Living, however, is such a human aspiration. We want fulfilled lives. Mythology gives us meaning. That’s why we keep coming back to it. In my own lifetime I’ve seen several resurgences of interest in the classics, and experts always seem surprised. They needn’t be, however. People have found these stories powerful well before the Greeks and Romans gave them the shapes we recognize. Many of them go back even further to the early civilizations of the Levant. The classics have, in other words, earned that name.